Misrepresenting Ayn Rand

I am taking a break from my top ten list of bad assumptions to respond to an article posted to Facebook about Rand.  This friend, whom I happen to think is a wonderful person, posted a link to an article saying how Ayn Rand devotees are greedy and selfish and are making America a bad country.  Here is the link:

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/12/clinical-psychologist-explains-how-ayn-rand-helped-turn-the-us-into-a-selfish-and-greedy-nation/#.VI79xO_vcBo.facebook

This article starts with the following quote:

Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society….To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.— Gore Vidal, 1961

The author of this article, Bruce Levine, makes in essence two main arguments:

  • Ayn Rand herself was a horrible person.
  • Ayn Rand’s philosophy is that you shouldn’t care about anybody but yourself.  This philosophy causes people to be ruthless and manipulative and is evil.

First, let me address the attack on Ayn Rand as a person.  As a start, the events described in this article are, to my memory, consistent with the biography “Ayn Rand and The World She Made” by Anne Heller.    I can’t state how fairly this biography portrays Ayn Rand.  It shows both the good and not so good of Rand.  In his article Levine emphasizes two of the less flattering aspects of Rand’s life.

Before discussing the actual attacks on Rand’s personal life, I would like to point out this is an “ad hominem” attack, an  the attack on character rather than an attack on the idea.  This is a common fallacy.  For example, if I a scientist proves that smoking causes cancer, but still smokes, one might attack his research on the grounds that he a smoker and that if he believed his own research, he wouldn’t smoke.  His smoking may be evidence that he is personally flawed, but it has no relevance on the validity of his research.  Likewise, pointing out Ayn Rand’s flaws has no relevance to her philosophy and arguments.  It only can prove that she is not the Messiah.  Still, people do look to the philosopher when judging the philosophy, so I would like to address these two key aspects.

Levine dwells upon Rand’s extra-marital sexual relationship with her disciple Nathaniel Brandon, for which Rand gained the consent of both of their spouses.  In Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s heroine Dagne Taggert had an affair with one of her heroes, Hank Reardon, so it would not be fair to claim that monogamy was central to Rand’s philosophy or that Rand was being hypocritical in this regard.  Rand did stress honesty.   She believed she was honest in her relationship.  She got angry when she felt she was betrayed and that her lover Brandon was not honest with her.  One may approve or disapprove of her actions here, but she was not inconsistent with her stated philosophy.

The second issue is one that I found more troubling when I read the biography.  Rand stressed using logic based upon objective facts.   She often stated that people need to think for themselves and not blindly follow others.  Yet when somebody in her circle developed conclusions that significantly differed from hers, she would treat this person as a heretic and cut the person out of the circle.  I personally do find this disturbing.  I also think it is entirely irrelevant to her whether her ideas are good or bad.

So now let’s go to the attack against her idea, primarily the attack that she promotes selfishness and not caring about others.  Levine offers us the following quote:

My ex-husband wasn’t a bad guy until he started reading Ayn Rand. Then he became a completely selfish jerk who destroyed our family, and our children no longer even talk to him.

I believe that this is a good example of what I have long felt is a glaring misrepresentation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  Much of the blame for this misinterpretation falls on Rand herself.  Rand did not respect conventional thinking.  She loved to taunt those she disagreed with.  She wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness”.   I’m sure she chose this title to be provocative.   Rand, however, uses the word selfishness differently than most people use the word selfishness.  I think she did her philosophy a disservice in her choice of this word.  What does she mean by it then?

In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt is Ayn Rand’s primary hero.  Rand described him as the perfect man.  I think Ayn Rand’s philosophy can best be summarized by John Galt’s oath.

I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Galt’s oath is fairly straightforward.  He is proclaiming that everybody has the right to live for him or herself and not for the purposes of others.  The primary misinterpretation of Ayn Rand is that people focus on the first part of the oath and not the second.  They say that Rand advocates exploiting others.  If you look at this simple statement, nothing could be further from the truth.  Rand is explicitly stating that we have no right to ask other people to subjugate their own desires and happiness to our own.

Moreover, Ayn Rand’s heroes keep their word no matter what.  Rand decries how people make excuses to explain why they can’t keep their word with lines like “It was beyond my control.  I couldn’t help it.  It’s not my fault.”  Rand’s heroes do not believe people should be able to force them into obligation against their will, but when they voluntarily make an obligation they must fulfill it no matter how difficult this may be.  For example, in Atlas Shrugged Dagne Taggert promised that a key customer that rail line would be completed on time.  When it looked like her railroad company would not be able to make this deadline due to the unavailability of a key part, the railroad bought a manufacturer for the sole reason of having it produce the part on time.

So when Levine cites the wife whose husband became a Rand-reading selfish jerk, this husband certainly was not following the philosophies of Ayn Rand.  When one has a family, one has voluntarily made an obligation. and one always fulfills a freely-chosen obligation.

Also, a common misinterpretation of Ayn Rand is the statement that Rand believes we should never help others.  Rand frequently stated that she has nothing against people helping others.  She just didn’t believe that people should be able to force others to help them.  Ayn Rand’s characters make huge sacrifices for those they care about, including undergoing torture and risking death.  They choose to make these sacrifices because the people they make them for are important to them.

As I stated earlier, I believe one main reason that Ayn Rand is so misinterpreted is that her definition of selfishness, which she thinks is good, differs from the standard definition of selfishness, which most people think is bad.  I would state that the standard definition of selfishness is thinking of oneself first without respect for the rights of others.  I would say that Ayn Rand’s definition of selfishness is thinking of oneself first with full respect for the rights of others.

Levine also made this statement in his article:

While Rand often disparaged Soviet totalitarian collectivism, she had little to say about corporate totalitarian collectivism, as she conveniently neglected the reality that giant U.S. corporations, like the Soviet Union, do not exactly celebrate individualism, freedom, or courage.

Quite frankly, I don’t see how anybody who actually read Atlas Shrugged could make that statement.  Ayn Rand despised crony capitalism where corporations conspire with government to gain an unfair advantage.  One of the main villains in Atlas Shrugged, James Taggert, is a crony capitalist and Rand attacks this practice throughout the book.

The purpose of this post is not for me at this time to explain or defend Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  It just got my goat that this article called her philosophy “evil” and then justified this rather damning accusation by attacking her character and by totally misrepresenting her philosophy.  Ayn Rand believed in logic.  Rand built her philosophy by starting at very low levels and painstakingly building logical arguments.  I have seen many attacks on Ayn Rand.  I have yet to see an attack that focuses on refuting her actual logic.  I would very much welcome it if anybody sees this who can post a comment pointing me to a good, fair refutation of Rand’s logic.

Ayn Rand was a staunch supporter of capitalism and an enemy of communism and socialism.   Capitalism epitomizes the belief that a person can pursue their own dreams.   Communism epitomizes the belief that a people should forsake their own dreams for the betterment of the greater good. In the last twenty five years both China and India have turned from socialism to capitalism and as a result have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class.  In the name of Communism, China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries murdered tens of millions of their own people.  Yet Levine and others call Ayn Rand’s philosophy evil.  How interesting.

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